Onondagas pleased their 30-year effort passes, but saddened by U.S. rejection
By Mike McAndrew Staff writer
For 30 years, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons has doggedly pressed United Nations officials to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples.
He’s traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and New York countless times to help write and re-write drafts, to strategize with other indigenous leaders, to lobby and cajole U.N. delegates.
On Thursday, three decades of work came to fruition as the United Nations General Assembly voted 143 to 4 to adopt a nonbinding declaration produced on behalf of the world’s 370 million indigenous people.
The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand voted against the declaration.
Lyons, who is 77, was not in New York for the vote. Tonya Gonnella Frichner, the newly elected North American representative to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – who has been working with Lyons on the declaration since 1987 – was the only Onondaga who attended. But Lyons said he savored the moment nonetheless. Though the landmark declaration may not help the Onondaga Nation in its land claim lawsuit against New York state, or settle the tax disputes between the state and its American Indian tribes, it is still important, Lyons said.
“This simply enlightens the world at large that there are indigenous people, and they do have rights. That, for the moment, is a little flash of light for us,” he said.
The 12-page United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People affirms the rights of indigenous populations to self-government in matters relating to their internal affairs and prohibits discrimination against them. It asserts that indigenous people have the right to maintain their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions.
Robert Hagen, a U.S. delegate at the U.N., said the United States opposed the declaration because the text is so confusing it will result in endless debate over conflicting interpretations. He said the declaration appears to require states to recognize indigenous people’s rights to lands they have traditionally owned and occupied without regard to other people’s legal rights.
“Although we are voting against this flawed document, my government will continue its vigorous efforts to promote indigenous rights domestically,” Hagen promised the General Assembly.
Frichner and Lyons said they aren’t buying that explanation.
“What is America going to think about that? What does it think that the democratic leader of the world votes against the rights of indigenous people?” Lyons posed. “People should demand an answer from George Bush.”
Lyons was one of a handful of Onondagas, and one of about 150 indigenous leaders from across the western hemisphere, who traveled in 1977 to Switzerland to push the United Nations to recognize indigenous rights.
“There’s no one author” of the declaration, Lyons said. The final document was the work of hundreds of indigenous people over the past three decades, he said.
But he said Frichner and her American Indian Law Alliance were instrumental in getting the declaration adopted.
Frichner, who was raised in Syracuse and now resides in New Jersey, was on the floor of the General Assembly with chiefs from the Tonawanda, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga and Tuscarora nations on Thursday when the votes were cast.
She said final revisions to the declaration – insisted upon by leaders of some African nations – weakened the document a bit. But still, she said she was pleased it passed.
Even though it is nonbinding, Frichner said, the declaration gives indigenous people a valuable tool.
“What we’re going to do is rely on the political will of nation states to use the declaration as a framework for their relationships with indigenous peoples,” she said.
Mike McAndrew can be reached at 470-3016 or firstname.lastname@example.org .